The ISS has more than 2,500 m2 of solar panels

Satellites, the silent workhorses of our modern world, rely heavily on solar energy to power their instruments and systems. Take the International Space Station (ISS), for example—it boasts the largest solar panels ever seen on a spacecraft (2,500 m2), generating a whopping 200 kW of power.

A standard 3U CubeSat cannot generate enough power for a 135W payload. Extra power doubles it's productivity, preventing critical power loss.
A standard 3U CubeSat’s power levels – Power demand (Top), standard battery levels (middle), increased power generation ensures battery doesn’t deplete (right)

But here’s the catch: despite all the advancements in solar panel technology, smaller spacecraft like CubeSats are still limited in power availability as they are too small to carry large solar panels. CubeSats must also accept that only the sides facing the Sun will harness energy – Depending on the mission parameters and orbital inclination, nearly half of their operational time is spent in shadow, exacerbating power limitations. Ultimately, this means they only operate for <5% of their total lifetime and they’re not cheap. It’s buying a Bugatti Veyron and only being able to take it out for a joyride – 30 minutes each day.

File illustration of EPICHyper-1 EnduroSat
CubeSats Maximise Solar Panel Coverage

The power of payloads is typically capped at 100W, around two lightbulbs. Any attempts to exceed these limits, pushes the batteries into regulated minimum battery levels and risks critical power failure and the complete loss of satellite control. To keep things running smoothly, satellite operators must launch whole fleets of these CubeSats, driving up the cost of operations and contributing to orbital overpopulation.

This has been the best solution yet. It’s like carrying hundreds of smartphones to ensure you’re always connected, each with a hefty financial and economical price tag. This demonstration of waste, against the promised boom in CubeSat use, signifies the pressing need for solutions to enhance their power efficiency and operational longevity.

The Sun isn’t getting any brighter, but we can use wireless LASER power banks.